Secretary Clinton Delivers the Keynote Address and Receives the Century Award at the New York Women's Foundation Breakfast

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Marriott Marquis Hotel
New York City
May 10, 2012

MS. DISNEY: You guys can write and listen at the same time. We’re multi-taskers. I’ll just say, I have one emotion forming right now, and I can’t quite find the words for it. But it goes something like this. It goes: “Wooo!” (Laughter and applause.) Nice. We rock.

So it’s an anniversary year, and that sparks all sorts of reminiscences. Forty years ago, to go back before the New York Women’s Foundation, I was a 12-year-old, pigtailed, very feisty tomboy in Southern California. I could throw, shoot, and fight just like every boy in the neighborhood. I broke a girl’s nose in one punch. It made me a legend, but it didn’t make me any fans among the nuns at the St. Charles School. Still, my brothers and I and the neighborhood boys, we were thick as thieves. We didn’t care. We spent our summers playing baseball and basketball and football on the sidewalk until we couldn’t see anymore, it was so dark.

But no matter how much I did to prove that I was as good as they were, I was always very aware that I was always going to play by a kind of different set of rules. Their dreams didn’t have boundaries. When they scooped up a grounder at third base, they were Brooks Robinson. When they hit a jump shot from the baseline, they were Jerry West. And when we gathered in the clubhouse and had a vote, I don’t think any of us was thinking of Susan B. Anthony. I don’t believe that you can’t be it if you can’t see it. But I do think it’s a lot more difficult to soar when you have no stars to shoot for.

It wasn’t long after my tomboy days, 25 years ago, when a lot of cockamamie, crazy women got together and started something called the New York Women’s Foundation. Twenty-five years is really not a long time in the grand scheme of things. Glaciers don’t move very far in 25 years. The Grand Canyon looks pretty much the same, no matter how much it’s rained on it. And no matter how they’ve tried, scientists have still not been able to figure out the mystery of what happens to your socks in the dryer. (Laughter.)

But a lot can happen in 25 years anyway. Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t have cell phones, or those of us who had cell phones, they looked like suitcases. And you couldn’t get pictures of cats playing piano on them, no matter how long you waited. (Laughter.) A candy bar still cost a quarter, little Kimmy Kardashian had not quite figured out the video camera yet – (laughter) – and you could probably rent a pretty decent apartment for what a lot of people pay just to park their car these days.

Like ATMs and emails, the New York Women’s Foundation pretty quickly came to seem both inevitable and indispensable in just that 25 years. It was 20 years ago when I came to my first New York Women’s Foundation breakfast pregnant. Twelve days later I gave birth to a baby girl – pregnant with a brand new baby and the country pregnant with a brand new first lady.

And just as that baby grew up and turned out to be quite a spectacular human being, that first lady has turned out to be quite a series of amazing and wonderful surprises. (Applause.) I remember my first Vote For Hillary’s Husband campaign pin – (laughter) – and just as with my daughter Olivia, I wonder how it is possible that we haven’t always known Hillary. I can’t imagine there’s been another historical figure like Hillary Rodham Clinton, and I use the term historical figure very deliberately. Because let’s face it: She has evolved from a nice lady in a pink suit and headband – (laugher) –who’s smallest comment about baking cookies could create a national scandal, into the hard-charging, forceful, and skilled Secretary of State that she is today. (Applause.) I think of her as the Secretary of State that takes no prisoners, unless they’re political prisoners and they need a ride home on your plane. (Laughter.)

I’m sure we all remember the received wisdom about the First Lady Clinton being the most divisive figures in American politics. I mean, how dare she have ideas about health care, and a plan even? How dare she? And yet, I’m sure you also had the same reaction I had, which was actually listening to what she was actually saying and wondering what the heck was so divisive about all the common sense that was coming out of her mouth. (Applause.)

When First Lady Clinton took the bold step of becoming Senator Clinton, she also flew in the face of received wisdom. How could this raging, radical, scary feminist possibly win votes upstate among the conservatives? And yet she did, and won by a wider margin than the received wisdom had predicted that she would. She was our first female senator from the state of New York, and she did us proud. (Applause.) Everyone said she couldn’t work across the aisle. And within her short one-and-a-half terms, she developed a 74 percent approval rating across the state, including 50 percent of Republicans. (Applause.)

So by the time Secretary Clinton threw her hat into the ring for the presidency, the received wisdom had finally come around to the idea that is was okay to wear pantsuits – (laughter) – that she didn’t really need the headband to be less scary, and that she was unlikely to set her bra or anyone else’s bra on fire – (laughter) – or otherwise upset the delicate sensibilities of the boys in the Senate. But they did say she’d never get as far as she did. And a couple of million cracks in the glass ceiling later, I think that it’s safe to say we can stop listening to received wisdom once and for all. (Applause.)

Many of us in this room aspire to be leaders; many of us are leading very successfully now. Most of us do this because we believe in our deepest heart that it’s only when we bring women all into their full power across the range of leadership and the range of human activities throughout the world that paradigms of power will begin to shift, hopefully for the better.

Sometimes I worry that we put a little too much stock in this. I worry that candy canes will not actually rain from the skies or unicorns descend to earth and dance with us when we figure this one out. Sometimes I worry that politics is just politics, paradigms written in stone, and that women will be more changed by than perhaps they can change the calculus of power. But then I think about Hillary Rodham Clinton. I remember what it was like to grow up with dreams that bumped up against restrictions and boundaries. And I remembered that just in the last 20 years since we’ve known her, a genie has been let out of her bottle and she cannot be put back in ever again. (Applause.)

This is going to sound like a non sequitur, but just stay with me for one second. Florence Nightingale – I think we all had a little children’s book about Florence Nightingale, and she was this lovely lady with a smile on her face. And she lived in two dimensions. Did you ever know that Florence Nightingale, this image of selfless, uncritical caring, actually opposed the founding of the International Red Cross? It was her view that if you give nation-states any help by taking care of refugees and taking care of their injured, you’re just going to make it easier for them to fight war and fight war more often. So she opposed the founding of the International Red Cross, a complex, certainly controversial point of view.

Helen Keller, another woman I read and read and read about as a little girl. Never forget her spelling out, “La, la” on Annie Sullivan’s arm. Do you know that that little girl turned into a fearless campaigner for peace with a sharper, more trenchant, more persuasive critique of the military-industrial complex a full three decades before Eisenhower ever put those words together?

History is not generous to women. History barely remembers us. And when it does, it tends to do so in two dimensions only. You know how when you go to IKEA and you buy this, like, amazing bookshelf and it’s got, like, drawers and panels and glass? And then you drive around to the back and they give you this flat box? (Laughter.) That’s what history does to us. (Laughter and applause.) It makes us so much less than what we are. And that’s what it did to Helen Keller and Florence Nightingale and Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt, and we could go on and on. But you know what? It’s not going to do that to Hillary Rodham Clinton, not if we have anything to say about it. (Applause.)

So all of this is the long way around to saying that Hillary Clinton does not need an introduction. (Laughter.) What she needs is thanking, and the best way that we can thank her is to remember all that she has been and done in the short time that we’ve known her so far. We can promise her that we will never trust received wisdom again. We promise to bring all of ourselves as women to every room that we have the chance to lead in. Thank you for taking the handcuffs off of my dream and the dreams of my daughter. Thank you for reminding us every day that we really are the best hope for the future in this world. And wherever it is you are headed from here, we have your back. (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Applause.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh my, wow. It is so great to be in New York. (Applause.) And it is wonderful to be here celebrating the 25th year of the Foundation and all that it has done for so many women and girls and for this city that all of us love. I am so grateful to you, Abigail, for those amazing words.

You may know a little bit about Abigail, and I hope you learn more, but if you have ever seen the film she did, Pray The Devil Back To Hell – (applause) – you get an idea of the passion and the commitment that she brings to the cause of empowering women and promoting peace and security for all people. I want to thank Diana Taylor for her leadership at the Foundation and for your tireless advocacy on behalf of women and girls, Diana. It is wonderful to be here with Ana and all of the staff of the Foundation. I’m pleased that I got a chance to see my friend, Speaker Chris Quinn, looking so sharp and fashionable. Not that I pay any attention to that, as you know. (Laughter.)

But the people who I am really excited to be here with are all of those sitting behind me and in front of you, because these are the women and the organizations that have really made a difference in the lives of people, some of whom we saw on this stage during the breakfast. I am so privileged to travel around the world right now as your Secretary of State, and to go – (applause) – to countries where we have the business of State to conduct – to go to official meetings, to sit across from tables, to go in and out of government buildings, parliaments, palaces, and do the best we can to promote American values and interests and promote our security.

But I try, whenever possible, to find time to meet with women who are trying to do, often under very difficult circumstances, what we celebrate here today – the work of this foundation. Because in places around the world, it’s almost unimaginable that there could be this large room of women and men who are supporting a foundation devoted to uplifting, empowering, helping, supporting, comforting women and girls as they make their journeys through life.

And so when I go somewhere, like I did last week to West Bengal in East India and had two remarkable experiences – meeting the newly elected chief minister, a woman who, on her own, started a new political party and built that political party over many years, and just successfully ousted the incumbent Communist Party that had been in office for 30, 34 years or so, and who is trying now to govern a state with 90 million people in it. And then I met with a group of women – mostly Indian, some American – who, along with some of the men who were running organizations to rescue girls from having been trafficked into prostitution – and I met some of the girls and the young women, and their stories sounded remarkably like the ones we heard this morning. And in particular, the very last line of one of our last presenters that change takes time and love makes the difference.

So when I – (applause) – was introduced to a young girl, probably about 10, who had, with her mother, been rescued from a brothel, who was dressed in her karate outfit and she asked me, “Do you want to see me do karate -- ” (laughter) – I said, “I really do.” (Laughter.) And she proceeded to perform a karate move. But it wasn’t so much the karate as it was the way she stood so straight, looked me in the eye, had a sense of pride and accomplishment about her. And that’s what we saw on this stage here, so many thousands of miles away.

The work that the foundation does is part of this remarkable combination of actors and institutions that we sometimes take for granted in New York and in our country. Many years ago, I talked about society really being a three-legged stool: You need an accountable, responsible government; you need an effective job-creating, prosperity-increasing private sector; and you need an active, dynamic civil society. And the civil society really fills the space that most of us live in every day – family and friendships and faith and volunteerism and all the community efforts that we are celebrating here today.

So I’m especially proud when I see what has been done in just 25 years, which is a blink of an eye in any historical sense, but I’m even prouder of what it represents and says about us as active, engaged, caring people who use our skills, our resources, to try to give back. And sometimes it is hard to see the changes. Maybe it is incremental, maybe it’s glacial, or maybe it’s like the Grand Canyon, but the cumulative effect makes such a difference. Those individual lives that are touched because of the outreach that your contributions make possible are irreplaceable. Even though we are living in a world of virtual reality, nothing substitutes for personal relationships. Nothing can replace that caring from one person passed on to another and another and another.

I learned this lesson very early from my mother, and since we are approaching Mother’s Day, I’ve been thinking about her a lot, since I lost her last November. And I was always struck at how despite a life that was much more difficult than anything I’ve ever experienced – abandonment and abuse and just really unfortunate kinds of early experiences – my mother had a resilience and a commitment to her family that she worked hard on every single day. And I often wondered – how did that happen? How could it be that you would be abandoned by your young parents and given responsibility at the age of eight to get on a train in Chicago with your six-year-old sister and take her all by yourselves to California to live with your paternal grandparents? How do you emerge from that emotional turmoil, that vacuum that still today too many children are placed into?

And when I got old enough to understand I remember asking my mother – how did you do this? How did you really survive without being paralyzed or embittered, being able to find from somewhere within the love that you shared and gave to others? And I’ll never forget what she said. She said at critical points in my life somebody showed me kindness; somebody gave me help. (Applause.)

Sometimes it would seem so small, but it would mean so much – the teacher in elementary school who would notice that she never had money to buy milk, who every day would buy two cartons of milk and then say to my mother, “Dorothy, I can’t drink this other carton of milk. Would you like it?” Or the woman who gave her a job in her house when my mother was 13 or 14 because she had to leave her grandparents’ home, and so she went to work as a full-time babysitter. But the deal was that if she got the children up and ready to go to school, then she could still go to high school, and so that’s what she did. And then the woman of this house where she lived would notice that she had only one blouse that she had to wash every day. All of a sudden, the woman would say, “Dorothy, I can’t fit into this blouse anymore and I’d hate to throw it away. Would you like it?”

Now, we think of those things as the kind of just personal connection and kindnesses that we take for granted. And in a time back in the 1920s when there weren’t a lot of formal organizations doing this kind of work, that’s what really mattered. Well, certainly today we still are primarily dependent upon individuals and institutions that are conveying the same level of kindness and caring.

And not all of us will be able to do what the groups behind us do every day, but all of us can support them and all of us can perhaps find a moment in every day when a kind word can make a difference, when a supportive pat on the shoulder can really speak volumes. Because in today’s world, which is so complex, so stressful, people need each other more than ever. (Applause.)

And so for me, it is a great delight to be back in the city I love. It’s wonderful to see all of you here supporting the foundation. It would even be more exciting if everybody just dug a little deeper before you left or when you get home. But your being here is in the best tradition of American caring. A lot of places in the world are just learning about volunteerism. They’re just beginning to create and support what are called NGOs, nongovernmental organizations. They’re finally understanding the government can’t do everything to help people have an easier way through life, to help pick them up when they, like all of us, inevitably fall. And business can’t either, given the pressures that we face in the global economy. So this space for civil society is growing everywhere, but it is here in America and in New York that we have demonstrated over so many years what a difference it makes.

So I am thrilled to be with you. I am proud to have this fabulous walking stick – (laughter) – which I will try to put to good use – (laughter) – either leaning on it or wielding it for whatever is the better purpose. (Laughter and applause.) But I mostly was looking forward to coming to take an excuse to actually be in my own country for a change (laughter), to encourage you and to be encouraged by you, to get reenergized for the work that lies ahead, and to express on behalf of my mother great gratitude for reaching out that hand, for providing that support, that safe place, and for giving hope and love to so many who need it. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)